Affairs in a Tent (Westcliff Palace Theatre)

In his introduction to playwriting reproduced in the programme for this part of his Intimate Exchanges sequence, Alan Ayckbourn warns against letting the audience off the hook. Alas, this is precisely what elements of Bruce James‘ new touring production achieves, at any rate as far as its first showcase performance is concerned..

There are only two actors who between them play six parts in this open-ended drama. The central one is Celia, the flustered wife of Toby, headmaster at a (very) minor public school. He’s an inconsiderate boor who drinks too much and treats everyone around him like not-too-bright members of a distinctly second-eleven cricket team. She’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown, which is not an unusual position for one of Ayckborn’s female characters.

Katie Funk makes a great deal of Celia, fluttery as she establishes a rapport for the school caretaker who she wants to do something – anything – with her garden and fails to make her husband take her private unhappiness seriously, then intensely moving as she finally loses it during the school sports’ day. Her transformation in the last scene is credible; a woman at last in charge of her own destiny.

Funk also plays Sylvie, the home help with a letch for caretaker Lionel and the late middle-aged visitor to the refreshment tent during the chaotic sports’ day. Balancing her portrayal should have been Damian Williams. Unfortunately he has a tendency, notably when playing Lionel, to write his own lines and step out of character. That completely ruins the necessary suspension of disbelief which all staged drama requires. His Toby, on the other hand, is well rounded and not played to encourage the audience’s sympathies.

Williams makes Miles, the chairman of the school’s board of governors, into too much of a Toby clone and not enough of a person in his own self-important right. There are three settings for the four scenes, which require slicker stage management than they are afforded; Funk’s lightning costume- and wig-changes work very well and serve to show both the development of Celia herself and the contrast with the women her personal dilemmas involve.